One of the most entertaining exercises before the start of any NBA season is trying to project the “breakout” candidates. In the Association, there’s even a specific “Most Improved Player” award to peg this type of player for, and we’ll take a look at the top 10 candidates for this award.
Dime Magazine puts out a yearly list of such a top 10, and this year the list was headlined by Atlanta’s own Lou Williams at #1. With apologies to Lou, I actually wouldn’t include him on my list, and here’s why. He’s already broken out for me. In 2011-2012, Williams posted career-highs in PER (20.22), turnover rate (5.9), and points per game (14.9). Is it possible that Williams could exceed those numbers in 2012-2013? Absolutely, but I wouldn’t call it likely, and even if he does so, it’ll be a modest jump at best, which should exclude him from a list of “most improved” candidates. But hey, you’re already a quality player, Lou!
Let’s take a look at the top 10 (in no particular order):
- Taj Gibson (PF, Chicago Bulls) – Gibson is a break-out candidate because of a potential opportunity increase. Gibson is theoretically stuck behind the vastly-overpaid Carlos Boozer. That said, Gibson posted nearly a 17 PER last season, and was clearly the better player to Boozer. Could Tom Thibodeau come to his senses and flip-flop the minutes for these two guys? If he does, Gibson becomes a double-double candidate.
- Nic Batum (SF, Portland Trail Blazers) – Another potential volume increase here. Batum was already a very good player last season with Portland (14 points, 5 boards, 17 PER), but with a new system and a new head coach, Batum is set to take on the role as the #1 perimeter option in Portland. If he gets the spike in field-goal attempts that I suspect, his numbers will take off, making him an option here.
- Bismack Biyombo (PF, Charlotte Bobcats) – At first glance, Biyombo’s numbers from his rookie season aren’t impressive. 5 points, 6 boards, and a PER south of 11 don’t inspire confidence, but after a second look, things are a bit rosier. Biyombo averaged nearly 30 minutes a game after the all-star break, which saw his averages jump to a modest 7 points and 7 boards a game. That said, it’s important to remember just how raw Biyombo was when arriving in Charlotte, and with a full off-season and a full training camp, I think he’s a bit of a breakout candidate. Keep in mind, he’s going to play a lot of minutes on that wretched Bobcats team, and he averaged 2 blocks a game in only 23 minutes per. I could see a 11-point, 9-rebound, 3-block sort of line on him at the end of the season.
- Tristan Thompson (PF, Cleveland Cavaliers) – Another lottery pick from the 2011 draft. Thompson averaged 9 points and 7 boards a game after the All-star break last year, and with a team that is still relatively devoid of big-time talent outside of Kyrie Irving, Thompson could easily emerge as the #2 option. Any time you can post a near-average PER of 14 as a rookie, there’s upside there, and Thompson is still very young at 21 years old. Keep an eye out.
- JaVale McGee (C, Denver Nuggets) – I’m going to regret this. JaVale McGee has one of the highest “upsides” imaginable with his freakish athleticism and size combined with an opportunity as a legit #1 center. Even with his ridiculous antics at times, he still had a PER near 20 last year and averaged 11 points and 8 rebounds on the season. With a steady 30+ minutes a night? I think McGee goes for 14 points, 9-10 boards, and 2.5 blocks a game. That’s big-time.
- Omer Asik (C, Houston Rockets) – The worst kept secret of the MIP award is that it’s basically tied to a huge opportunity increase. That applies to Asik. Stat-heads (like myself) already know about Asik, as he’s an elite defender who was trapped behind a front-court logjam in Chicago. Now, he’s the starting center in Houston and he’s in line to play 30-35 minutes a night. If he keeps to his per-minute averages in Chicago, he’s in line for 7 points, 11 rebounds, and over 2 blocks a game while shooting over 50% from the field. That’ll work.
- George Hill (PG, Indiana Pacers) – Speaking of opportunity changes (are you sensing a theme here?!), Darren Collison is gone from Indiana, and Hill is the unquestioned starter and #1 point guard for the Pacers. He averaged 10/3/3 in 25 minutes a game last season, but saw those points per game jump to 14 a night in the playoffs as he got more playing time, and Hill is also a big-time defender. With his primary back-up being DJ Augustin, I think Hill is playing 30-33 minutes a night this year, and if he can parlay his playoff success into a bigger role, he could average 15 a night on a playoff team.
- Al-Farouq Aminu (SF, New Orleans Hornets) – Aminu hasn’t been too impressive in his young career so far. After being the 8th pick in the 2010 draft, he got sort of buried in LAC and now gets his first real opportunity in New Orleans. He’s penciled in as the starting small forward with the Hornets, and with Hakim Warrick as his primary competition, he’ll likely keep the job. He’s got big-time potential on the defensive end, and with a slight spike in his offensive production, he could be a 12-14 point scorer in that wide-open offense.
- Michael Beasley (SF, Phoenix Suns) – I don’t like this at all, but hear me out. I believe that Michael Beasley, if he remains the starter in Phoenix, will average 20+ points per game. He’s proven that he can score (career 15 points a game), and in Phoenix, he’s legitimately the number 1 perimeter option, if not the number 1 option overall. It’s a simple fact that if he jumps from 11 a game last year to 21-23 a game this year, he’ll be in the running for this award.
- John Wall (PG, Washington Wizards) – I’m planting my flag on John Wall. I know he’s hurt and may miss the first couple of weeks, but I won’t let that deter me. I think he’s an elite athlete, he’s already averaging 8 assists a game (with that awful supporting cast last season, no less), and now he’s got legitimate pros around him. There’s one uber-concern with Wall, and it’s his Josh Smith-like obsession with taking jump shots that he shouldn’t take. Last season, he shot 3-for-42 on three pointers and 29.7% on jumpers outside of 10 feet. He’s a bad jump-shooter. That said, if he either a) improves his shooting a touch, or b) stops taking as many from out there, I can see a 19-point, 9+-assist, 5-rebound, 2-steal type of line from Wall, and that’s All-Star territory.
There you have it. Just remember, “most improved” equals “best opportunity increase”. Cheers!